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Chattaroy Man Searches For Old Apple Varieties

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Dave Benscoter talks about working with a Troy, Idaho man to rediscover apple varieties near Troy.

A few weeks ago Dave Benscoter came to our studio to be interviewed by the BBC. Benscoter is a retired law enforcement professional. His vocation revolved around detective work. But instead of asking him about searching for lawbreakers, the Beeb was interested in another of his passions, finding varieties of apples that are old or seem to have disappeared.

Benscoter has helped farmers and others in Whitman County, where he grew up, with their Lost Apple Project. He’s also working with other apple enthusiasts, including two in north Idaho, Nikki Conley and Casimir Holeski. They’re doing their own work to preserve and promote heritage apple varieties. We’ll spend a few minutes with each today and talk with the head of an Oregon group that works to identify lost apple varieties.

First to Benscoter’s farm near the base of Mount Spokane. We walk out to the tree he used to start his small orchard.

“I’ve got probably about 30 trees, 10 here and then a bunch across the creek, and I think I’ve got about 40 different varieties just on this tree alone,” he said.
Yes, a tree that started bearing only golden delicious apples is now capable of bearing about 40 varieties, many you’ve probably never heard of.

“Karmijn de Sonnaville. This is a Virginia Gold. I’ve got Palouse apple here. I’ve got one or two of the lost varieties. I’ve got Fall Jeneting. That was just discovered about six years ago,” Benscoter said.

How does this happen? Every spring, Benscoter grafts branches from different varieties of apple trees onto the branches of his trees.

“I’ve actually been trading what they call apple scions — or grafting wood — with people around the country for about five or six years now. Other people across the country are just as crazy as I am and they like to try these old varieties too," he said.

Each branch that’s fused bears the variety of the newly-grafted branch.

“Yeah, it kind of looks like Christmas out here with all the different colors, red and orange and yellow and green, during the fall,” Benscoter said.

Benscoter’s interest in apples came after he retired. A neighbor asked if he would come and pick apples from her trees. They sit in an unusually fertile area right near her well and no one had pruned the trees for years. So he trimmed them that fall and planned to come back the next year.

“And then that winter I just started researching. I just kind of got the bug. I didn’t know what kind of apples they were so I called her and she knew one variety, a yellow transparent, was in the orchard. And she called her brother and her brother knew that wealthy was another apple, but that was it,” Benscoter said.

Benscoter used his investigative chops, finding old county maps and other documents, to help him pinpoint apple varieties. In fact, he and a guy in Troy, Idaho recently used some of those techniques to find what they believe may be trees with lost apple varieties near Troy. (click the button above to hear the story)

Benscoter believes there are about 17,000 named varieties of apples in the U.S. He says many originated back east and have been lost.

“But the really good varieties have stayed with us, even from the very first pilgrims, a few varieties have stayed with us through history," he said. "Two thousand of those trees have been rediscovered, but some of those apples have been lost again and so, what we want to do is, with the apples that we’re finding out here in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, is to, when we find a tree, we don’t want it to get lost again.”

An organization in Molalla, Oregon called the Temperate Orchard Conservancy has become kind of a fact checker for apple varieties.

“They do all of my apple identification too. We send them scions and they graft them to small trees there, so we can be assured that we’re not going to lose these varieties again," Benscoter said.